ZOiS Spotlight 24/2022

Bulgaria’s New Political Crisis

by Ivaylo Dinev 22/06/2022
Prime Minister Kiril Petkov on 21 June at a demonstration in support of the government on the occasion of the no-confidence vote. IMAGO / NurPhoto

After just six months, Kiril Petkov’s cabinet has collapsed after a successful no-confidence vote submitted by the opposition. Bulgaria has been in political turmoil since one of the parties in the four-way coalition left the government, claiming that the Prime Minister had ignored Bulgaria’s national interests by making unilateral concessions to neighbouring North Macedonia in the EU accession talks.

The ‘government of change’

Petkov’s government was formed after growing discontent with corruption and poverty led to mass demonstrations against the ruling party GERB in 2020. Three successive parliamentary elections were held over a year as the new ‘protest parties’ failed to secure the majority required to govern independently. Finally, in autumn 2021, the centrist party ‘We Continue the Change’ (PP) formed a fragile cabinet under Kiril Petkov with the support of the liberal coalition ‘Democratic Bulgaria’ (DB), the populist ‘There is such a people’ (ITN) and the centre-left Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Despite many differences in ideology and values, the coalition’s goal was to remove the centre-right GERB from power, as it was linked to many corruption scandals and siphoning off of EU and national funds.

Given the political fragmentation when Petkov’s cabinet was formed, no one expected a long life for the coalition. But faced with external threats due to the war in Ukraine and rising inflation, a consolidation of the coalition was expected. However, when Slavi Trifonov, a popular singer since the early 1990s and leader of ‘There are such a people’, appeared on TV and announced his departure from the coalition and the withdrawal of ITN’s four ministers from the government, it lost its majority.

The other coalition partners stated that they would remain in the cabinet, which was henceforth dependent on votes from the opposition and those deputies leaving the ITN parliamentary group. So why did Trifonov plunge the country into a renewed government crisis?

Hypothesis 1: Government policy towards North Macedonia

The veto against EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia was claimed by ITN representatives to be the main reason for leaving the coalition. Trifonov and the outgoing Foreign Minister Teodora Genchovska (ITN) accused Petkov of pursuing a unilateral policy without taking into account the parliamentary consensus and the national interest. Bulgaria’s official position on North Macedonia’s accession, as voted for in the National Assembly, is that the veto on EU membership should be lifted only after certain conditions relating to the interpretation of history, the status of Bulgarians in North Macedonia’s constitution and the language are met.  Petkov was criticised for promising to lift the veto without achieving these conditions. All this was happening against the backdrop of Western partners’ increasing pressure on Bulgaria to lift the veto.

After ITN’s surprise departure, the centre-left BSP expressed support for the PM and the government. BSP’s position suggests that the veto on North Macedonia was probably not the real reason for ITN’s departure: for BSP, the lifting of the veto without fulfilling the conditions set by the National Assembly is a ‘red line’.

Hypothesis 2: Russian gas

Another reason for the rift in relations between PP and ITN was the decision on Russian gas imports. This is what Deputy Energy Minister Plamen Danailov from ITN claimed in a TV interview. According to Danailov, the Ministry of Energy ‘complied with the decision of the Council of Ministers to stop paying Gazprom’. He said the Ministry was in favour of ‘a more balanced approach and postponing the withdrawal from Russian gas supplies’. In late April, Gazprom suspended gas supplies to Bulgaria, Poland and Lithuania in violation of the contracts concluded with these countries.

Plamen Danailov’s words contradict the position of outgoing Energy Minister Alexander Nikolov (also from ITN), who said in an interview for Free Europe that negotiations on supplies would not take place in a situation of war and claimed that Bulgaria had been deliberately made dependent on Russia in the past decades. Some commentators accused ITN of pursuing Russian interests in Bulgaria, but the party’s political positions are traditionally pro-Western and pro-NATO. Its leader Trifonov stated his position on Facebook in April, writing that he is ‘on the side of those who believe that Ukraine should be supported in every way – including with weapons’.

Hypothesis 3: Economic cartels pull strings behind the scenes

The third hypothesis on the breakdown of the coalition is that the outgoing government’s anti-corruption actions have affected the interests of economic cartels. PP claimed that ITN was leaving the government because they did not receive a shocking additional BGN 3.6 billion on top of the budget of the Regional Development Ministry (led by Grozdan Karadjov from ITN) for construction and maintaining building sites. In an interview, Kiril Petkov declared that he has ‘indisputable evidence’ that ITN was hoping to structure the payment through the Ministry in such a way that ‘corruption becomes possible’.

In June, the state regained access to phytosanitary control at the border with Turkey for the first time since 2012. Until recently, the company Eurolab 2011 Ltd., which an independent investigation found to be controlled by individuals linked to drug lord Christoforos Amanatidis-Taki and the former ruling party GERB, carried out the phytosanitary controls. In late May, Deputy Minister of Agriculture Ivan Hristanov said that over the past 10 years, not a single video recording had been kept at the premises where the checks on food trucks entering Bulgaria from Turkey are carried out.

The hypothesis that economic cartels dictate ITN policy is supported by politicians who have left the parliamentary group and told the media that the mafia had infiltrated ‘There is such a people’ and that a group of behind-the-scenes individuals was guiding its leader Slavi Trifonov’s decisions. Immediately afterwards, Trifonov announced that he would sue Prime Minister Petkov and others who insinuated that he represented the mafia in Bulgaria.

What is next?

The successful no-confidence vote has led to the fall of the government and, in all probability, snap parliamentary elections. Voter turnout is expected to reach its lowest level since 1989, with two-thirds of citizens unlikely to go to the polls and an increase in political fragmentation with seven or eight political parties entering Parliament, creating even more obstacles to the formation of a governing coalition.

Just two years ago, thousands of citizens protested against corruption and poverty in the poorest EU member state. Over a million people cast their votes in the hope that Bulgaria would become a fairer country, at least for their children. However, ‘the government of change’ ends its life mired in former partners’ accusations of betrayal of national interests, interference by behind-the-scenes players, and a dispute over the distribution of billions from the state budget. But one thing is becoming very clear: neither the outgoing PP, BSP and DB nor their voters will accept coalitions with the seemingly pro-European parties GERB and DPS, which have been linked to numerous corruption scandals in recent years.

Ivaylo Dinev is a political scientist and a postdoctoral researcher at ZOiS, where he coordinates the KonKoop research network’s multi-method data laboratory.